Art and the Ruling Class

In my first semester in college, my intro. to philosophy professor tasked use with writing a paper on why some art is valued more highly than other art. I didn't have an answer -- and I still don't -- but I was eager to talk about marxism at every opportunity. This is the paper I came up with. It skirts the question; it talks about who determines what counts at as art, but not why something ends up counting as art. For that reason, and others, I wouldn't write this paper today even though I still agree with the political premises (even down to veering between marxism and anarchism depending on the paragraph). -- 2019-03-15.

"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it." - Marx and Engels in The German Ideology (1).

Why is it that some art is held up through the ages for its beauty and virtue while the majority of art is cast into the rubbish heap of history? The question is, in essence, "what determines the value of a given work of art?" The answer, I believe, is that while there are many factors which can not be discounted, the key determinative element is that until relatively recently the power of discourse, criticism, and commendation has overwhelmingly been concentrated in the hands of a small minority, i.e., the ruling (and consequently the best educated) class. It is my argument that this class was historically the most significant factor in determining the value of individual works of art as well as whole movements and artistic philosophies.

My argument can basically be summarized this way.

  1. That in any society there is a ruling class in control of the means of production. This class, this ruling elite, also has control of most mediums by which discourse on art can take place. I mean by that that the great publishing magnates, the newspaper barons, and the rest of their plutocratic ilk own the presses and the corporations that publish commentary and discussion on art.

  2. That, historically, commentators on art have been members of one ruling class or another, and therefore these individuals were the best educated by virtue of their position in life. For example, most artists and critics would likely have been sons of the aristocracy.

  3. To be published by any instrument of the ruling class one must be willing to accept their views on art, i.e., to be published, one can not be too divergent in opinion from that of the publisher.

  4. Furthermore, the state, the ruling government, is a tool of domination of one class over another.

  5. Thus, the state is often involved to directly defend the interests of the ruling class. For example, there are myriad examples of state censorship and repression of artistic expression in many developing countries. Likewise, there are instances of similar repression in the United States, though they have often taken a more subtle form. New York City's former Mayor Rudolph Rudy Giuliani often threatened to withhold funding from the Brooklyn Museum because of offense towards a single work of art is an example (2).

  6. Thus, if the state can repress directly, it can also do so indirectly by means of education and by control of funding. Funding can be directed towards art that promotes or reflects the values of the ruling class, while it can be equally channeled away from artists or institutions expressing non-conformist viewpoints.

  7. Thus, most opinions of art have until now been the opinions of this class in possession of education, control of the state, that instrument of class domination, and the actual means of discourse.

Objections to this argument would do best to concentrate and attack each premise.

One could argue against premise one by responding that while there very well may be a ruling class, that it does not control all means of discourse. This would have been a laughable position to take until recently with the ubiquity of cheap, mass communication mediums such as the internet. However, historically, the control of publication has generally been in the hands of a ruling class.

Premise two also seems very strong. While there may been a few exceptions to this, until the recent advent of public education, the well educated have been the richer members of society. We certainly cannot argue that a serf in 19th century Russia would have as much ability to discover and engage in art as would the son of a British aristocrat of the same era.

Premise three is equally strong. Noam Chomsky explained in American Power and the New Mandarins how intellectuals of the 1960s were 'new mandarins,' servants to the powers that be, in reference to their subservience to the state. The same obviously trues true to art: to be published in a meaningful manner, one had to make sure to respect the views of those publishing.

Premise four is probably controversial, but I personally believe that it is more or less true. V.I. Lenin, the most prominent Marxist philosophy of the 20th century, succinctly said that "the state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms are irreconcilable" (3). If one can accept premise four, they are thereby forced to accept premise five and six.

Premise seven is the conclusion and a summation of my argument and I believe that premise seven is the logical conclusion.

To accept this conclusion is not to say that this situation will be forever. The Russian anarchist-communist Peter Kropotkin said that the social revolution is "... in order to obtain for all of us the joys now reserved for a few; in order to give leisure and the possibility of developing everyone's intellectual capacities" (4). When the day comes that class society is overturned and a new dawn rises, then perhaps art will be truly appreciated for its objective beauty rather than anything else. Until then, however, it seems that the most powerful force in determining artistic value will remain the ruling class.

  1. Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. Marxists Internet Archive.

  2. Alom, Shumon. "Rudy Giuliani: Artificial Art Official." CCNY Messenger. November 99. 31 October 2002.

  3. Lenin, Vladimir. State and Revolution. Marxists Internet Archive.

  4. Kropotkin, Peter. The Conquest of Bread. London: BM Elephants, 1990.